TOKYO – Japan’s longest-serving Prime Minister, Shinzo Abe, confirmed his resignation on Friday, citing ill health. Abe said his health started declining around the middle of last month, and that he did not want illness to affect important policy-making decisions, CNA reported.
“I have decided to step down from the post of the prime minister,” he said at a press conference, saying he was suffering from a recurrence of ulcerative colitis.
Abe has battled the disease for years and two recent hospital visits within a week fanned questions on whether he could stay in the job until the end of his term as the ruling party leader, and hence, prime minister, in September 2021.
Abe took three days of holidays this month and on August 17 made an unannounced hospital visit, staying there for more than seven hours for medical checks. He made a second visit to the same hospital a week later for additional tests and said at the time that he intended to continue in the job.
As the news of his likely resignation spread earlier in the day, Japan’s benchmark Nikkei average fell 2.12 percent to 22,717.02, while the broader Topix shed 1 percent to 1,599.70. Abe’s resignation will trigger a leadership race in the LDP, the winner of which must be formally elected in parliament.
The conservative member of parliament returned as prime minister for a rare second term in December 2012, pledging to revive growth with his “Abenomics” mix of hyper-easy monetary policy, fiscal spending and reforms. He also pledged to beef up Japan’s defenses and aimed to revise the pacifist constitution.
On Monday, he surpassed a record for the longest consecutive tenure as a premier set by his great-uncle Eisaku Sato half a century ago. Under fire for his handling of the coronavirus pandemic and scandals among party members, Abe has recently seen his support fall to one of the lowest levels of his nearly eight years in office.
Japan has not suffered the explosive surge in COVID-19 cases seen elsewhere, but Abe had drawn fire for a clumsy early response and what critics see as a lack of leadership as infections spread. In the second quarter, Japan was hit by its biggest economic slump on record as the pandemic emptied shopping malls and crushed demand for cars and other exports, bolstering the case for bolder policy action to avert a deeper recession.
Abe kept his promises to strengthen Japan’s defenses, boosting spending on the military after years of declines and expanding its capacity to project power abroad. In a historic shift in 2014, his government re-interpreted the constitution to allow Japanese troops to fight abroad for the first time since World War Two.
A year later, Japan adopted laws scrapping a ban on exercising the right of collective self-defense or defending a friendly country under attack. But Abe proved unable to revise the US-drafted, post-war constitution’s pacifist Article 9, a personal mission that also eluded his grandfather, Nobusuke Kishi, who quit as premier in 1960 because of the uproar over a US-Japan security pact.
Abe resigned from his first stint as the prime minister of Japan in 2007, also citing ill-health after a year plagued by scandals in his cabinet and a huge election loss for his ruling party. He had since kept his illness in check with medicine that was not previously available.